Tips for type 1 diabetes teens that struggle with an eating disorder

Teens with type 1 diabetes are twice as likely to experience an eating disorder, so it's important to watch out for symptoms.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. For teens with type 1 diabetes (T1D) eating disorders can be characterized by actions of both manipulating food and manipulating medications.

Characteristics & symptoms of eating disorders

Studies from the Journal of diabetes science and technology have shown that girls and women with T1D are about 2.5 times more likely to develop eating disorders than those who do not have diabetes.

When referring to an eating disorder involving insulin restriction, a common term used is diabulimia: (di meaning diabetes/ bulimia meaning to purge) The American Association of Diabetes Educators explains common characteristics of diabulimia, which include:

  • Obsession - Constantly focus on eating and counting food
  • Poor self-image - The result T1D has on self-image
  • Comparing oneself to others - Due to the increased average weight associated with T1D compared to teens without.

The Journal of Diabetes Science & Technology and American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) report a list of symptoms associated with diabulimia:

  • Insulin restrictions or purging - T1D often include insulin restriction as a way of calorie “purging” (getting rid of calories) this can lead to severe medical consequences.
  • Insulin manipulation - Skipping or under-dosed insulin regimes.
  • Being underweight and weight loss - Fast and drastic weight loss also increases the risk of both acute and long-term T1D complications and increased risk of death.
  • Poor adherence to one or more treatment regimens.
  • Poor metabolic control with elevated glycated hemoglobin (A1C) - The A1C percentage measures how much sugar is attached to the blood’s hemoglobin protein.
  • Recurrent symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) & recurrent episodes of ketoacidosis (a serious complication of diabetes that occurs when your body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones).
  • Growth retardation and pubertal delay.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please seek help. Contact your primary care doctor, a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders or the National Eating Disorder Association. For more information on nutrition, health and diabetes self-management visit Michigan State University Extension.

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